The Inheritance of 17 Camels

Most of us may have heard about the tale of the inheritance of 17 camels that originated in Arabia during the zenith of the Golden Era of Islam from circa 750 CE. It was first narrated by Hasrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad.  This timeless story has been told through the ages by word of mouth, then through printed text and digital output and through the internet media, in almost every language that exists in the world today.

Some people may interpret the story as a riddle to challenge the intellectual mind. Some people may view it to show the brilliance of a great mediator to settle an almost impossible inheritance problem. Some people may read it in tribulation to the prowess of some great mathematical and scientific minds produced in that era. Some may explain that this was the way of the Arabs that upon the death of a Benefactor, the beneficiaries must seek ways to find an equitable solution to honor the behest of the Benefactor to the letter.

Yet to the Sufis, this is an extraordinary cryptic message to his disciples that they must seek further to advance their knowledge in mystical Islam.

I have heard …

A Sufi Master was near death.  He knew that his 3 disciples had yet to learn the great truth and the way of the Sufis.  He wanted to make sure that upon his death the 3 disciples would be able to come under the tutelage and guidance of another Sufi master.

In his possession he had 17 camels.  Thus, he laid down a bequest that his disciples must follow strictly according to the following instruction as to the distribution of his asset:

“The 3 of you shall divide the camels in the following proportions: the eldest disciple shall have half, the middle in age disciple shall have one-third while the youngest of the disciple shall have one-ninth.”

He died after his bequest was written.

Now the 3 disciples were in a dilemma as the disposition of the Master was oblique because 17 was a number that could not be divided at all, except by itself. So the 3 disciples sought out advices from learned men as to how to divide the 17 camels among themselves.

Someone told them to own the camels communally and when they reproduced then they may be able to find a suitable solution.  Some  told them to make the nearest possible division.  An old and wise trader said that they should sell the camels and divide the proceeds among themselves.  A Qadi (an Islamic judge) mentioned that the bequest was wrong in stature and that it was null and void because it could not be executed at all.

As the 3 disciples had been under the guidance of the Old Sufi Master for some years they had gained for themselves some measures of wise thinking.  Thus, they knew that their Master might have some hidden wisdom in his bequest.  They made further enquiries as to whom they could refer to so as to provide them with a satisfactory answer to this insoluble problem.

An old trader by the market said that he could not see the light to their problem but he knew someone would be able to help them.  He referred them to Hasrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad.

Upon meeting with Hasrat Ali, he provided the solution as follows:

“I will add one more camel to the frock and that shall make the total number of camels to be 18.  The eldest disciple shall have one-half and that will be 9. The middle of age disciple shall have one-third and that will be 6. The youngest disciple shall have one-ninth and that will be 2.  Thus, one camel is left over and it shall be returned to me.”

And that was how the 3 disciples again found their Sufi Master.


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